Is meditating like taking the red pill in “The Matrix”?
Yes, in fact it is, at least according to author Robert Wright in “Why Buddhism is True” – a book whose simplistic title does not do justice to its geeky and frankly mind-blowing innards. Wright holds that the clarity of meditation/mental work is so earth-shattering that it reveals parts of the fundamental truths about who we are – or at least, who we aren’t, which is what we have generally been led to believe. Just like “The Matrix,” as he asserts.
There’s even a force working “against” us, although it’s not the Matrix’s “robot overlords” as Wright calls them. It is, in fact, natural selection. Wright holds that natural selection has bred us to be fundamentally selfish and to vastly over-estimate our own specialness, all in the goal of getting us to pass on our genes.
Our drives to succeed in all the various permutations of that goal of procreation – from being more successful than our peers to being attractive to eating plenty of sugar and fat. We may not actually want to have kids now, and in fact these drives may not even help us now in that goal or in others we consciously hold. Nevertheless, these drives continue and manifest as forces in our mind.
Seeing those forces for what they are – and rising above them – is key to getting out of the matrix.
Making sense of the modules in our minds
Wright uses the word “modules” to describe collected forces in our mind. He goes to great lengths to explain that these modules are messy, interconnected, and imprecise. Nevertheless, if my experience is any indication, you can actually organize your mental forces into modules without a lot of effort.
You can use animals – like I do for some of the more base instincts: a rabbit for my primal fear instincts, a dragon for hurt and anger, even Mo Willems’ pigeon. Cookie Monster works for my rabid desire for sweets. These modules fit fairly easily into Wright’s forces of natural selection.
But other modules are more complicated. And here’s where it is particularly useful to be a geek. I find that I can easily picture my modules as characters. The Thirteenth Doctor in her goggles likes to investigate how things work. Rebecca from “Crazy Ex Girlfriend” is around to be ambitious and manic and showy. Even Anne of Green Gables is in there, a holdover from childhood who loves beauty and whimsy. I was able to list a few dozen of them actually from all over fandom – maybe that identification is why I’ve loved them.
Why go to all the effort of categorizing your modules? Not only is it a fun fan exercise, but it actually brings incredibly valuable clarity and a new level of meta-organization. I can see that if I go outside and look at a flower, I’m indulging “Anne.” Is she “me”? Sort of, but I can also control “her.”
Most usefully, that is also true for the modules/characters that have impulses that aren’t so beneficial. Rebecca’s ambition is a good thing for me sometimes but she can also be petty and vindictive. Rather than owning the thought of “I am wronged by that person and I will retaliate!” I can sometimes – with great effort – think Rebecca is being particularly forceful right now. Maybe I’ll shift perspective mentally to someone else.
Meeting our modules in (and at) the movies
The brilliant clarity that comes of such mental exercises is one transformation that Wright compares to taking the red pill in “The Matrix.” Geeks have a leg up on all of this, I think – we have characters we love so much we “stan” them, and we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how certain characters fit into our identity.
Pixar fans have had a particular advantage since the movie “Inside Out.” In it, a girl’s emotions are represented as cartoon characters in her mind, all working together and sometimes vying for control. These characters are feelings, and in the book Wright seems to say that feelings are generated as tools by the modules – but nevertheless, I think it works as an apt illustration of these ideas.
“Joy” is voiced by the wonderful Amy Poehler, and the character is given the same shiny optimism (and occasional pathos) that she gives Leslie Knope in “Parks and Recreation.” In the movie, Joy must learn that the pursuit of happiness can’t always be the main goal. Sometimes things are more complicated and other emotions must take control.
Hopefully, we can do the same, realizing that our own search for the next thing to make us happy – a thing to buy, a food to eat, etc., will ultimately not fulfill us in a meaningful way. We can shift perspective from Joy and realize our personal desires aren’t “us” and they aren’t the only important thing.
Using movies to illustrate these ideas gets even more meta with Wright’s illustration of the movies to further illuminate the nature of our selves. Our “selves” go to the movies in our mind – stories told by the modules within us. They are valuable and wonderful and provoke strong feelings, but don’t forget that our mind movies are stories that we are being told. In the words of Han Solo – “don’t get cocky out there kid.”
And what if we do get cocky? What if we own our own impulses, no matter how ultimately unfulfilling and potentially quite selfish?
Well I would add to the movie metaphors and bring in Harry Potter. In it (spoilers for the seventh book here) Voldemort splits his soul into horcruxes, or physical objects relevant to him. They must be destroyed for him to die. To me, I feel like our modules could ossify into horcruxes if we aren’t careful. We may own our own desires/needs/impulses to such an extent that we become blind to other people and other possibilities. At that point, we will be like the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’ “The Last Battle” – unable to see the beauty around them in the afterlife because they are so absorbed in on their own conviction that they are in the dark.
As such – I hope I don’t let Amy Poehler become a horcrux for me, or at least her optimistic ambition and drive for “joy,” either in “Inside Out” or in “Parks and Rec.”
Where are our selves in all of this?
That of course begs the question of what that “I” is that is doing the horcrux-making or the “going to the movies” in the first place. While watching “Inside Out” I’ve always kind of been spooked by the lack of a meta-self for the girl to actively control her emotional characters. Where is “she”? Where am “I”?
For me personally, I’ve thought in the past of my “self” as a lobster – in the particular sense of a lobster that changes shells according to how it evolves. This view is a lot more complicated. My lobster is going to the movies and watching shows put on by its potential shells, maybe??
Wright lays out how Buddhism (or at least some Buddhists) hold that there is no self. Part of enlightenment is realizing that the you that you think of as “you” is just being buffeted around by the winds of other forces.
That said – a depressing nothingness isn’t necessarily all there is to us. We aren’t going to find out pure truth here, after all. As Wright notes, “…some people say that the Buddha’s original not-self teaching is best seen not as a metaphysical truth but as a pragmatic strategy: regardless of whether a self exists, by jettisoning parts of what you think of as your self, you clarify your view of the world and become a better and happier person.”
Maybe as the girl in “Inside Out” grows up, she can go to yoga class and meditate – and her own mental “self” will manifest itself above and among those emotional characters.
When we do so, we not only help ourselves but help ourselves be better citizens of the universe. We need to realize the sun does not orbit around us – now more than ever with our increasing tribalism, as Wright notes.
How does that self interact with the world? What is the world?!
A second part of being enlightened is realizing that all the people and things around you are not inherently what you think they are. Perception is actively made, he (and Buddhism) asserts, and when you take away when you have imposed on everything else, you are left with – what? Maybe a truth that you haven’t imagined, maybe “nothing” that you can comprehend.
Doctor Who’s “perception filters” are a useful geek analogy here I think – just like in the show, what our senses tell us is being constructed by an alien force. Only it would seem that those alien forces are inside our own minds, and they might be powered by natural selection. Perhaps we can chip away at our perception filter and get at a more accurate view of the universe.
Fortunately, a more accurate view is actually full of beauty and wonder, or so says Wright. Meditators see more beauty and dole out more compassion, not less, which is good news indeed for those of us who wonder if the world’s evils don’t lean us all towards nihilism.
In fandom, we can look to Vulcans, to the Jedi, maybe to Doctor Strange, to find those who transcend slavery to feelings and attachment (or at least, attachment to our perception of the thing we are attached to?). They always seem to be working for the good. We already take bits and pieces from their quotes and their lifestyles, maybe taking on more of their ideas (while rejecting those that don’t serve us) might help us in our journey.
How do we and the world come together? Are we the world, are we the children?
So I’m a little lobster watching movies, and so are you. Or maybe I’m a lobster holding a staff meeting with all its potential shells. Perhaps. In any case – how does all this fit together in a community?
In the surprisingly-depressing “The Good Place” finale, Chidi asserts that we are like waves in water, there for a bit and then gone. I’d rather think of us as the Great Link of shapeshifters in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. We are shifting parts of a whole but still retain some individuality, in the end? That seems to track more with life in nature (rather than water in nature) – like trees and plants’ roots all mingling with fungus and bacteria in the soil – individual but also part of a whole?
I don’t think we can get to a conclusion here and certainly with my limited philosophy and meditation experience at this point, I wouldn’t hazard a specific guess. It’s all fairly head-spinning and I highly recommend reading the book to get Wright’s systematic deconstruction of these ideas.
In the end, I hope we can all try to keep an open mind – whatever the “mind” is and however its inhabitants can be persuaded to be “open.” Wright asserts that our nation, our world, and our very evolution as humans may depend upon it.